Owing to their great antiquity and nefarious role in the Atlantic slave trade, the castles at Cape Coast and Elmina are of global significance as the centrepieces of a UNESCO World Heritage Site embracing all the fortified buildings along the Ghanaian coast.
Although Ghana has a comparatively ill-defined travel circuit, it does boast one obvious touristic focal point in the form of the twin ports that adorn the coast 150km west of Accra. These are Cape Coast and Elmina, centuries-old trade and military rivals protected by two of the oldest, largest and best-preserved European-built castles in West Africa, yet only 10km apart as the cannonball flies.
Owing to their great antiquity and nefarious role in the Atlantic slave trade, the castles at Cape Coast and Elmina are of global significance as the centrepieces of a UNESCO World Heritage Site embracing all the fortified buildings along the Ghanaian coast. Yet the towns over which they stand sentinel, far from being stuffy period pieces, are lively modern ports, steeped in Fante tradition and history, but also reflecting the contradictions and intricacies of 21st-century urban Africa. Further afield, there are some great beaches running westwards from Elmina, while Kakum National Park, inland of Cape Coast, which is renowned for its 40m-high canopy walkway, is also the most accessible place to seek out some of Ghana’s elusive forest wildlife.
Steeped in history, the first capital of the Gold Coast Colony is dominated by the hulking Cape Coast Castle, nerve centre of the 18th-century transatlantic slave trade © Ariadne Van Zandbergen
The attractive fishing port of Cape Coast, set on the east bank of the Fosu Lagoon, is steeped in history. Settled at various points by Portuguese, Danish, Swedish and Dutch traders, it became the coastal headquarters of Britain’s Royal African Company in 1664, and later served as the first capital of the Gold Coast Colony. The town’s antiquity is reflected in a varied range of architectural relicts spanning four centuries, most notably the hulking seafront presence of Cape Coast Castle, but also in its organic shape of tangled roads hugging the curves of low hills.
Cape Coast is a fascinating town to explore. In some respects, the streets and alleys of the old town centre, with their comfortable lived-in feel, genuine sense of community, and blurred boundaries between administrative, business and residential districts, recall the older ports of East Africa’s Swahili Coast. And yet the administrative capital of Central Region is also, emphatically, a very modern town, supporting a population of 145,000, of which something like 15% are in some way associated with the respected University of Cape Coast on the town’s northwestern outskirts.
A popular base with backpackers and volunteers, central Cape Coast is well endowed with budget accommodation and eateries catering to Western palates, as well as with banks, internet cafés, bookshops and other tourist amenities. The main central attraction is the castle, now a museum dedicated to the history of the transatlantic slave trade, but it is also a good base for exploring nearby Elmina and Kakum National Park.
Straddling the thin strip of land that separates the brackish Benya Lagoon from the crashing waves of the Atlantic, the strikingly attractive town of Elmina is the equal of nearby Cape Coast in terms of historical sightseeing, though it is often overlooked by tourists in favour of its larger neighbour. It started life as a fishing and salt-producing village at least 700 years ago and – despite having once formed the epicentre of the West African gold trade, first as the Portuguese and later the Dutch coastal headquarters – an overgrown fishing village is basically what Elmina remains today.
Much of this small town’s fascination lies in the juxtaposition of its grandiose European architecture and modest African village roots. There is something decidedly odd about watching colourful pirogues sail in and out of the lagoon, much as they might in any other small Ghanaian port, except that here it all takes place in the shadow of the oldest European building in sub-Saharan Africa. Elmina also boasts an interesting collection of posuban shrines, second only in their variety to those at Anomabu, while the beach running west of the town centre supports a string of superb beach resorts catering to all tastes and budgets.